Did Australian Surfing Just Get Its Mongrel Back?

by Jed Smith October 26, 2021 8 min read

“It’s just jumping in on that Brazilian storm thing, but turning it into an Australian flag,” says Quiksilver Pro France champion Connor O’Leary of the resurgence in unapologetic patriotism and camaraderie that crystallised among his countrymen over the course of the European Challenger Series leg.

Somewhere between the endless stints in quarantine, the prospect of spending six months straight on the road, and Australia’s fall from grace as a surfing superpower (at least on the men’s side), the country’s current crop of competitors have made their way back to a place they never have left.

“Fuck, it’s been a full generation shift for us,” says Connor.

“Now all the boys like Callum Robson, Dyl Moffat, Kalani (Ball), Jacob (Wilcox), Jacko (Baker) and crew, we’re all on the same page like, ‘Fuck, we just want our mates to get through.’ If I’m not getting through, I’d rather watch my mate get through,” he says.

Unbridled patriotism proved a winning formula for Mick Fanning in his drought-breaking world title run, and so it is today. The resurgence of a core national crew precipitated a breakthrough runner-up finish for unheralded Australian, Jackson Baker, in the Portugal event prior to France. Meanwhile, India Robinson scored a runner-up in France alongside Connor’s win. Both men’s and women’s Challenger Series leader boards are now brimming with Australians.

In the closing minutes of a semifinal heat, Connor dropped an 8.43 to snatch the lead against event favorite Kanoa Igarashi. [seen here at 1:58]. Let’s catch up with him for a chat.

Stab: What a win man. How did you toast that one?
Connor O’Leary: We just had a full house party at Jezza’s (Jeremy Flores) place. (Aussie female pro) Dim (Stoyle) got a hook up to get some decks — she knew a guy who was a DJ. He brought the decks. It was a full-blown house party in our backyard. Just pure — all the Aussies and Dimmy was spinning. Funny as, full lock-in. It was the best, so fun.

It looked like the Australian contingent really came together. What’s behind that renewed sense of camaraderie and how helpful was that?
It’s just a shift in generations. When I first started, along with Wade (Carmichael) and all that, the guys older than us weren’t overly supportive. There was a lot of rivalry between those older guys so no one went down and watched each other’s heats unless there was someone in the final or something like that. Now we’ve become those older guys and the younger guys are all about backing each other. At the end of the day, it makes so much more sense. Everyone’s got that in their heads now — you’d way rather see your mate get through than some other bloke you don’t really care about. We’re all on that same page now, going to watch everyone’s heats. It’s been the best, and you can see it with the consistency of all the Aussie boys. Everyone wants to support each other and it fires everyone else up because they want to be in that spotlight and have that Aussie backing as well. Fuck, it’s been a full generation shift for us which has been mad.

Is this a flow-on from the Olympics?
The first time I saw a bit of this was in 2019 when Lobby (Liam O’Brien) got second at the US Open. I was in the quarters and I lost in the morning and Lobby was getting through heats. From the quarters to when he surfed the final, it was so cool because the Australians had half the competitors area, and the Brazilians had the other half. We were all backing Lob to win it. That was the first time where I was like, ‘Wow, this is something so new that all the Aussies are so supportive.’ But that’s how it was back in the days of Snake, Richie Lovett and all those boys. Now we need to keep doing this. It’s come to everyone being like, ‘Fuck let’s back each other and give this tour a red hot crack.’ It’s been showing because there’s heaps of Aussies in the top 20 at the moment.

Connor, about to get cheered on/berated. Photo: Laurent Masurel/WSL

Come final time, you’re surfing a left shorey with a team of your countrymen — Chippo Wilcox, Wade Carmichael, Dyl Moffat, Cooper Chapman — not more than 20 meters away as you’re stomping a big air onto dry sand pretty much. You must have been absolutely flaring.
I’ll never forget the moment when I did that air and I rode out. Cooper ran down and he’s in just over knee-deep water yelling, ‘Come on cunt! Get fucken back out there!’ There was a line of people, but he was the first person I saw because he ran up closer. It was just the fucken coolest thing, stomping an air and seeing one of your good mates revving you up.

More broadly, this must have been the most radical year in your surf career. Could you talk us through the ups and downs?
Hundred percent. It’s definitely been the most roller coaster year I’ve ever had, especially doing the CT and having it not work out. The more I think about the CT, the more I realise you’ve gotta have A LOT of belief in order to stay on that tour. And I feel like this year, because I wasn’t getting great results, I was losing that belief so quickly. When I fell off I was like, ‘Do I do the CS this year? Or do I go home and reset until next year?’

I was just like, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to use these events to try and find that consistency and have fun in heats.’ I wanted to actually surf in a heat. I hit Dog (Marsh) up for these two Europe events to have that extra reassurance when I did have a bit of doubt in my brain about something, so I could relinquish that and just go surfing. 

The ups and downs of self belief. It can’t have helped being locked in a quarantine room alone for two weeks at a time, several times…
It was a tough year for everyone, especially for the Aussies because we had to do the quarantine and we weren’t able to go back and forth and reset. It was really hard. And then on top of that, not getting results, then falling off tour and going, ‘Fuck, I’m not gonna go home, I’m gonna be on the road till December.’ To get your head around that and reset in general was super hard at the start. It was a matter of finding reason and purpose to get back on the horse and try and put some good heats together. That was my main goal: to try and surf again. I put too much pressure on myself on the CT and just wanted to free it up a bit on the CS.

Roxy Pro France runner-up India Robinson (pictured here), Callum Robson, Liam O’Brien, and Connor O’Leary are all Australians currently sitting in CT qualification positions. Laurent Masurel/World Surf League.

The last time elite Australian sportspeople were on the road as long as you guys was probably those cricket teams in the 1930s who’d get a steamboat to England and be there for like nine months at a time.
I left home on the 4th of August. It’s nearly been three months. I’ve got a flight home in December, but it’s seriously fucking wild. It was great having Jason Patchell to work with, the sports psych at Surfing Australia. I was also talking to guys like Dog and James Woody (surf coach and former world junior champ) at home. I had a lot of contact over the phone, but you get that little bit extra when it’s face to face. That was hard. But it was just a matter of getting back on the horse, trying to surf good, and getting a bit of confidence back because it definitely wasn’t there when the CT was on.

You’ve also had to leave your newlywed wife, Steph, at home.
Yeah, she came for the Surf Ranch and then she had uni and all that. It was just like, ‘Fuck, I’ll do this and we’ll just meet at the end of the year.’ She was cool. She gets it, and that’s why I can do what I do. It makes travelling and being away for so long that much easier. I couldn’t do it without her.

It must make you and the rest of the Australians on tour feel more like family being in the unique position of traveling on the road together for so long.
The fact we can’t go home has made us all come way closer than normal. Us Australians can be in seperate little groups, but at the end of the day we still manage to get together and celebrate each other’s birthdays and all that. We’ve been doing dinners every night. We’ve been taking the time to enjoy each other company and support each other. It’s been really sick.

And what about that trick shot kickout? That thing went viral. 
That thing went so viral. I didn’t even realise. Fuck, that heat was so high tide I was like, ‘If I keep doing this, I’m definitely going to be losing fins.’ So that one, I just figured I’m gonna give it a go. Afterward, I was thinking about how embarrassing it would have been if I missed the grab and went face-first into the sand.

I wish that happened.
That would have been more viral I reckon. Like when (Stephen) Belly ran down with that spare board and tripped in France. I was just like, ‘Fuck it works! I’m never gonna do that again.’

[Laughter] That was your first attempt? On a live broadcast! Incredible. You know you’re in rhythm when you’re pulling shit like that off. You were always going to win the contest from that point on, weren’t you?
[Laughter] Seriously. Based off that, hey. It just had this perfect bit of backwash before the sand, so I thought I’ll flick it up and see if I can catch it.

Allez les Australiens. Video: Instagram/@connoroleary

What were the biggest moments from the event?
The Ring of Fire at the end of the final was the biggest highlight of my career. It was so sick coming in and seeing all the boys. Wade-o was like ‘Ring of Fire’ because we did the same thing with Jacko in Portugal — even though he got second, we chaired him up. Me and Cooper were like, we should do the Ring of Fire cos back in the day when the ISAs were on, Team Australia did it with every competitor that surfed a heat.

Everyone got around and during the first one we did, I looked up and there were three rows of French people behind everyone, yelling ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!’ There was like fucken a hundred people doing it! It was the best thing ever. Easily the highlight of my career. That moment was something I’ll never forget.

You can sense the feeling amongst the Australians over there even on the broadcast…
It’s just jumping on that Brazilian storm but turning it into an Australian flag. It’s been firing up all the boys. Hopefully, we go to Haleiwa and finish the year strong with a bunch of Aussie boys on tour next year. 

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